The immune system and personality - emergence from the You

The immune system and personality - emergence from the You

24 January 2022 Georg Soldner 2412 views

When we look at a newborn infant, we experience an encounter with a personality. But the personality is not an isolated personality. As the philosopher Hegel emphasized, we do not develop alone, but much that forms us has to do with those around us, with our destiny. From the beginning, the personality grows up within a constellation of other personalities and in a variety of circumstances. What is less well known is that personality development is intimately related to the development of the immune system. Both these developments do not begin at birth. In order to understand them, we have to look even further back—to the pregnancy.


It is during pregnancy that we develop or grow into our physicality. We are not alone then—as unborn children we take in all the joy of our mother, her voice, her singing, also her fears, as well as her stress whenever that exceeds a certain level. When we look at an unborn child, we see an evolving body. The unborn child, with her or his tiny limbs, swims in the amniotic fluid. We see their connection to the maternal womb and to their enveloping membranes. The outermost shell, the chorion, differentiates into an organ that is intimately connected with the mother: the placenta. This is the most important organ for the unborn child. From here children begin to build their individual body— which at the beginning of this development is almost completely upside down—and to unfold a powerful nervous system. But the placenta has no nervous system, no bones. All the blood of the unborn rushes through it in a minute, and yet it crucially informs the embryo’s building processes. The placenta’s most important function is warmth regulation in the unborn child, the most important regulation of life. The unborn child’s body temperature, which is kept half a degree warmer than the mother’s, is regulated by the placenta.

The placenta acts as a peripheral heart and it is the unborn child’s ‘peripheral central organ’, like the sun is to all life here on earth. The placenta is viable even without an embryo; it is directly attached to the mother. Only after birth does the brain take over the warmth regulation. What does that have to do with the immune system? We know that with a fever of 39 degrees (Celsius), our immune system is optimally efficient, and that its achievement depends on warmth. Even animals that depend on the environment for warmth seek warmer places when they are infected and thereby increase their chances of survival.

The placenta is an organ that naturally shields the child, but at the same time it creates a strong bond with the mother. The placenta is a border organ between mother and child. It forms a protection through which the child is protected from experiencing everything the mother experiences. But this protection can be overpowered when there is overwhelming stress.

During the last trimester of pregnancy the placenta develops a microbiome, a bacterial life. In this way, the child is already immunologically prepared for life outside of the mother’s womb. The human immune system matures when it encounters the microbial world. Decades ago, physicians still imagined the body as being sterile. Today we know that this is not the case. We carry bacteria in our lungs, on our skin, in our intestines, etc. And since 2014 it has been known that a bacterial flora develops in the placenta, too. Surprisingly, this microbiome of the placenta does not resemble the vaginal flora but the flora of the maternal oral cavity. Good dental status and a healthy diet can therefore indirectly affect the placenta.

Placenta as periphery incarnate

The placenta is relevant, both in terms of the development of our immune system and of personality development. But what is personality? What is the ‘I’ that we love to talk about? Rudolf Steiner says: ‘The I is something essential.’ It is a ‘being’, something that currently is not looked at in natural science. Furthermore Rudolf Steiner indicated that ‘The central organ of the I during pregnancy is the placenta.’ The placenta is where the I dwells during pregnancy—with a completeness that we no longer have in us after birth.

As individuals we are never as physically present as we are in this phase of life, when we build up the whole physical body, which later becomes a mirror of ourselves, even if this is an unconscious presence. The placenta forms the starting point of our individual bodily development and, on the other hand, an ‘I-organ’ that is completely fused with the mother’s organism—and that becomes the starting point of our immune- and personality-development. It is warmth that is central to all bodily processes. Where warmth is regulated, where the conditions of warmth are formed in our body, our I is present, actively forming the body. Where we catch cold, where we are not present, where we no longer feel our organism because it has cooled down too much, foreign entities can settle in and alienate the body. Towards the very end of his life, Rudolf Steiner introduced the term ‘I-organization’ for the individual body-creating activity, the I activity. It is linked to the physical regulation of warmth. And the immune system is a particular expression of the I organization. This brings us to what we call individual personality.

However, our warmth organization, and much more of our bodily organization, is not yet viable on its own at birth. As human beings, we need the possibility to live within another person who connects with us, supports and attends to us, and whom we change to a certain extent in this process. Initially, the I can only be present in the individual body through ‘the You.’

In a particularly impressive way, this is what early child development during pregnancy, but also after birth, shows us. The mystery of the I is a mystery of center and periphery. Everything that was contained as function in the placenta, in the periphery of the body, develops into separate organs with different functions in the child's body. In the placenta everything was united, undivided, as in a sun. In the new body they become separate organs and earth maturity arises. The placenta, this 'pure' dwelling of the I, will never arrive on earth. Finally, the child, under natural circumstances, initiates its birthing process through the placenta. This initiation of birth also initiates the dying of the placenta.

Reflection begins in the gut

Human relationships are crucial for the immune system to develop. When newborns are artificially separated from the mother at a time not chosen by them, this will have consequences for the immune system for many years. The immune system will not develop as well as it would otherwise. The differences are widely known today from studies of children born by planned caesarean section. In general, a good ‘me-to-you relationship’ between children and their parents, as well as other people, promotes the development of the immune system. Human neglect can have a particularly 'toxic' effect and increase stress levels.

The immune system is a digestive system, and it develops from our main digestive system. It allows us to digest foreign matter anywhere in our body, not just in the gut. Two thirds of our immune system always remain connected to the gut. The gut is the primary place where we internalize, break down, transform something of the world and rebuild it in us. As is well known, the microbial life in our gut is of crucial importance for the functioning of our immune system.

In 1920, when hardly anyone could understand him, Rudolf Steiner pointed out in medical lectures, that we internalize the microbial life of the intestine—that we draw some of the strength out of it, that our personality’s mental presence depends on the microbial life in our intestines. The brain, he said, was the reverse of the gut. At the time, the medical doctors present found his lectures completely incomprehensible. With current medical insights it becomes clearer.

The normal architecture of the brain, especially the blood-brain barrier development depends upon our intestinal flora and the substances—short-chain fatty acids—that we absorb from this flora. In a healthy situation, the intestinal flora is originally a gift given by the breastfeeding mother. Breast milk carries over 100 types of bacteria to the intestines. Nothing is sterile that used to be considered sterile. In dealing with this microbial life, the immune system also learns one of its most important skills: to stop and limit inflammation. We suffer or die from many diseases not because of the lack of activity of the immune system, but because of its never-ending or excessive activity, as seen in all chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases. This is where our immune system derails because it doesn't put limits to its activity. Each of us acquires the ability to regulate these processes in the first few years of life by dealing with our own intestinal flora, especially in the upper part of the large intestine.

We have a gastrointestinal tract in which, from the mouth onwards, things only go forward. Then they go through the small intestine, which sorts out what we can use from our food. But only higher animals develop a further stage of digestion, the large intestine, where our bacterial flora, our microbiome, develops. Here the food pulp is rhythmically pushed back and forth. In the large intestine we accumulate the substances that we cannot digest further but keep in us. The strongest impetus for developing the human brain comes from this large intestine. What happens there? We organically review what we have taken in from the outer world.

In doing so, we give space to other life: the microbial life within us. This microbial life depends very much on our diet, on how the intestinal flora is nourished, how this foreign life can develop in us, and form substances that decisively promote the development of the brain and the immune system. In the large intestine, a substantial basis for conscious personality development arises in the earthly realm. But digestion and intestinal flora are also of crucial importance for our immune system, a system that is extremely capable of learning unconsciously, and a system open to the environment. Within the first three years of life, the individual composition of our intestinal flora stabilizes. Every antibiotic treatment during this time has particularly lasting effects on this stabilizing process, which benefits from being therapeutically balanced.

The profound importance of sleep for the brain and the immune system also shows how our rhythm of life influences these organs and therefore the possibility of our bodily I-presence. As adults, there is also an organic effect from whether or not we do a conscious daily review. This process of reflection has the aim of consciously 'digesting' what we have experienced during the day, so we can hand it over to the night. This creates a moment of transition to detach from day-to-day business, to look back at it without consciously judging it. The judgment comes in the night from other beings whose task it is to do this, and who simultaneously give us the strength to create something positive from this process.

Health and the I—a creative performance

It is quite interesting that our I always reveals itself in activity, in its 'performance'. For this process to function well each I is dependent on the care of others. This care creates the social framework in which we live through disease processes, enhancing the inner, body-creating, preserving, and transformative activity. What we are used to calling ‘illness’ is actually an inner degradation and rebuilding process. The most important maturational processes of the immune system take place during illness. Without going through acute illnesses, our immune system cannot develop. Such illnesses are an

exercise for the immune system, as long as it is not overwhelmed. If it is overwhelmed, external medical interventions aim to restore the possibility of recovery. Illness processes can also prompt essential mental maturation processes, if good attention and care is given to them.

When talking about the immune system and personality development, we can ask ourselves: ‘What is health?’ A Dutch colleague, Machteld Huber, describes health as the ability to self-direct and adapt. In other words, health is not the absence of illness, or well-being, but it is 'creative performance,’ something that is characteristic of the I. The ‘I’ as a being is a performer. This performing dimension of the ‘You’ —and therefore of the ‘I’—is has been pointed out by Jürgen Habermas(1) in his last major work ‘Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie’. Health is the question: to what extent can this personality, this ‘I’, orient itself, adapt, form, and develop out of itself in this life, at all levels: body, soul, and spirit? It’s about movement out of oneself.

We know how the human I seeks to encapsulate itself. It thinks, it imagines, it plans, it expects many things based on self-designed models. The higher I Rudolf Steiner describes is open to the world, has fused with the world*.* The I knows it owes itself to the world. The question as to the You is the question of gratitude. The self-centered ego experiences itself as centric, in extreme cases as egocentric. The higher I is pure world interest and openness to the world. It's the social, You-able ‘I’. Wolfgang Schad(2) pointed out the parallel between this understanding of the ‘I’ and the organ of the placenta. We can learn much from this about how the I can fruitfully place itself into the world.

In embryonic development we find, on the one hand, the formation of biological inner spaces in the unborn child, on the other hand, the peripheral protection by the universal embryonic enveloping organs—the fetal membranes, the umbilical cord, and especially the placenta, which also consists of fetal tissue. Thus the human organization before birth makes itself totally available for the construction of the individual bodily self. Thereby this organization forms a more complete corporeality available for both human gestures as we find them evident in us after birth. In the embryo we can see physically what we will become after birth, not bodily but spiritually. And we can reconsider our concept of health. We will not become healthier by trying to save our personal health. If we try to save our own health, we will lose it. And if we sacrifice our own health for the health of others we will keep it. Our personality and our immune system both develop most healthily through a healthy relationship to the world.

From this way of looking at things, a natural science can develop that Goethe sought to initiate, a natural science based upon the human I in its dialogical-corporeal relationship to the world, including the I of the researchers themselves with all they experience. Such a natural science builds a bridge towards morality, as Goethe attempted with his color theory. As a result of this, we can also understand an essential aspect of the religious life. ‘Religio’ means re-connection, and the embryo is in a unique way physically (re-)connected to a 'higher life'. We could also define religion as the long-term knowledge or long-term ability to foster life. We cannot create life, but we owe ourselves to life. Religion as our free, grateful relating back to the source of our life in its fullness of body, soul and spirit, can connect our I in a unique way with the origin of our life in its physical, mental and spiritual dimension. If we remember the best thoughts of Hegel, Schelling and Hölderlin, we can experience and practise the trinity of art, science and religion in us as care of soul, spirit, and life.


(1) Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher and sociologist in the tradition of critical theory and pragmatism.
(2) Wolfgang Schad: Die verlorene Hälfte des Menschen. Die Plazenta vor und nach der Geburt. Stuttgart: Verlag Freies Geistesleben; 2005.

Published in: Das Goetheanum – 20 January 2022

Translated from the German by Hannah C. Eikenboom MD

Cover Image: Painting by Hannes Weigert, 2021